What Makes Useful Criticism?

by jeanineoloughlin

Thinking Through My Fingers

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Issac Asimov


In any profession you have to be able to handle accepting criticism. In high school and in college my teachers would try to tell me that you have to take the good with the bad and learn from it. This is probably one of the biggest lessons I was taught but didn’t really experience until I entered the workforce. I was a good student, I loved school, and I always put in my best effort and got along with most of my teachers, so bad criticism wasn’t something I experienced often and it was always delivered in a very kit gloved manner.

Useful or constructive criticism is an opinion or statement wherein the ‘speaker’ supplies support and/or suggestions. Criticism that is less than helpful, even if well-intentioned, are things in which you get a vague opinion that is unactionable. If you don’t know how to make something better than the feedback is useless to you. Having actionable feedback to react to is key.

What do I mean by actionable? To explain let’s do a little role-playing and I commissioned a pieces of art from you for a new series I’m working on. I give you the basic synopsis of the story and a description of the characters. You put hours of work into the piece and send me a sample to review and give feedback. You get an email back from me and I say, “I don’t like it. Please make it better.” How are you supposed to act on that? You know that I don’t like it, but what do you do to make it better? Now, on the other hand I could have sent you an email that says “It’s too monochromatic and the character blends in with the background.” Now you know what I don’t like and can work on making the character pop from the background more.

Now one thing about those well-intentioned but vague opinions is that they can be a great teaching moment for you and the reviewer. Not everyone is used to giving good feedback and sometimes as the writer you have to help them dig a little deeper to get the answers you need. This helps the reviewer understand what type of feedback you’re looking for and in many cases they learn for the next time around. This also helps you learn what questions to ask when you run into these types of information. Things I usually start with are; did you like the characters? Could you relate to any of them? Was their dialogue believable? Did you get a good feeling for the setting? Was it believable? Then once they get into more specifics you can get to the real root of their like/dislikes.

Now I think most if not all of us are familiar with those terrifying creatures that stalk the darker places of the internet. Yes, I’m talking about Trolls. The way I think of internet trolls are like the annoying little brother who when sitting behind you at the theatre keeps kicking your seat just to see how angry he can make you. Then, when you turn around to strangle him, giggles maniacally and calls for Mommy. So, just like that annoying little brother (or sister, but I had a brother so that’s what I’m sticking with), you just have to take a deep breath, rise above it and ignore him. Then if he doesn’t get bored and move on… gag him.

Now once you’re able to identify what’s useful criticism you have to decide how to react to it. We’ll dig into this topic next week.

Happy Writing!